Travel a couple of hours south of the border to enjoy a Mexican town with a seaside view.
By Julia Hollister
Here’s a hot tip for road gypsies who yearn for new destinations south of the border: Pack up and head for San Felipe, in Baja California, Mexico, where the motto is “No Bad Days.”
The destination is relatively new, but the culture and ambience are not: a peaceful inland sea; majestic mountain views; and a protected, unusual desert ecosystem. And best of all is the unhurried pace, with 320 days of sunshine each year in which to enjoy it. San Felipe is such a contrast to some high-priced, high-paced American cities that it attracts U.S. citizens who want to change their lifestyles.
The geological history of the San Felipe (pronounced “sahn fay-LEE-pay”) area dates back more than 150 million years to the formation of the Baja California peninsula, while its written history began when the first Europeans set foot on its soil. Beyond that, nothing is known of the first humans to enjoy the local shores.
Spanish cartographer Domingo del Castillo first identified the San Felipe cove as “Santa Catarina”on a map he was making in 1539. It received its current name in 1746 when Padre Fernando Consag landed there and formally dubbed the area San Felipe de Jesus.
The town itself started as a little fish camp in 1904, and by 1916 was known as a commercial fishing port. After a paved highway was built between the Baja California capital of Mexicali and San Felipe in 1951, the town began to offer hotels and campsites. A sizable shrimp-fishing fleet of small pangas (boats) still operates there today, but the principal income has changed from fishing to tourism and retirement living.
November through March is the prime “snowbird” season in San Felipe, with motorhomers arriving from all regions of the United States and Canada. Tourism and investment in retirement homes has come from places as far away as Australia. By Easter week and the surrounding “spring break” weeks, when college students from schools around America invade San Felipe, the town is at its busiest. Hotel rooms are at a premium and traffic jams are routine on the road to and from the border crossing in Mexicali. Also, beware that if you visit in March, San Felipe is the starting point for the Tecate SCORE San Felipe Baja 250, a 250-mile off-road race through the desert for dune buggies, trucks, and motorcycles. The race draws hundreds of spectators, so camping space might be difficult to find.
From May through September, the weather is fine for those who like to lie on the beach with plenty of sunblock lotion. Fishing is good, and the pace of life slows considerably. But summer temperatures sometimes soar to triple digits, so most folks make their visit between October and May when it’s cooler.
San Felipe is 125 miles from the international border between Calexico, California, and Mexicali. The primary route to town, Mexico’s Federal Highway 5, has good signage, and the road is well-maintained. The landscape begins to change about an hour outside of Mexicali from green farmlands to the rugged Sonoran desert. Mountain peaks grow closer with breathtaking vistas and rocky slopes.
As you continue to travel south on Highway 5, you begin to see the aquamarine waters of the Sea of Cortez on your left. When the tide is out, the view is amazing: a mile of white sand strewn with sand dollars and exotic shells. Most places have tide charts, so you can plan your beach walk in advance.
The town of San Felipe is home to 25,000 permanent residents and 10,000 annual visitors. The streets are paved, and finding your way to the downtown seawall, called the malecon, is not difficult. The main street faces the sea and is lined with restaurants and sidewalk eateries. From the elevated seawall you can view the coastline and the highest spot “” the Virgin of Guadalupe Shrine. The climb up the stone steps to the top is rewarded with sweeping views of the sea, desert, and mountains.
The main area of the town is about five blocks long. Getting around is easy and parking for average-sized motorhomes is available on the street. Locals say San Felipe is what Cabo San Lucas looked like 20 years ago “” a slow-paced fishing village with great food and friendly locals.
Food? This is the shrimp capital of Baja, so your lunch or dinner likely swam in these waters last night. Shellfish is abundant, and recipes for cooking it are just as varied. Rice and Beans, a great family restaurant with a funny name, has inside and deck seating. You can enjoy a beverage of your choice and watch sun bounce off the azure water.
“I started my business here because this place is like paradise,” said owner Martin Romo. “The style is strictly fresh Baja. Our signature dish is fresh shrimp with garlic butter and is the most popular. I think the smell of sizzling garlic brings in the hungry customers.”
Another must-have on the menu is the tangy cerviche, a concoction of raw fish, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and cucumbers marinated in lemon juice. It’s served in a large “fish bowl” topped with avocado slices.
The local clams are tiny and sweet and the perfect accompaniment to your dining experience.
The best guacamole on the planet is served down the street at Baja Mar on the boardwalk. You can dine inside or in the plant-filled garden room. (Fans are provided during the hot weather.)
In addition, many small walk-up cafes on the malecon offer fresh seafood and typical Mexican dishes.
If you crave a steak or Italian fare, then the Red Lobster restaurant at La Hacienda de la Langosta Roja (Red Lobster Hotel, no affiliation with the American restaurant chain of the same name) is a good alternative for a big night out. An evening with strolling violins, white tablecloths, the elegance of dining by candlelight, and excellent cuisine is worth the extra pesos. Try the crab cakes with peso sauce for openers. Also on the menu are great pasta dishes and a flan (a caramel custard) that will delight your taste buds.
How is the water? Ask for bottled water in all restaurants, but don’t worry about the ice cubes in your drinks. All ice is made from purified water.
On the street behind the main avenue, shops brim over with souvenirs that run the gamut from beach towels and straw hats to pottery and silver jewelry. (I bought a stunning silver dolphin clasp bracelet for around $15.) Don’t be afraid to bargain with the sellers; it is expected. Most of the shopkeepers speak English, but any effort on your part to speak Spanish is admired.
Most of the new construction around San Felipe, including a golf course and housing communities, is located outside of town. If you’re a golfer, you may wish to ask about the course at Eldorado Ranch.
Many RV parks and campgrounds are located north and south of San Felipe, but walking into town is for the adventurous and not recommended during the scorching summer months. Bring a towed car, unless you plan to use a campground in (or very near) town. Finding a site is easy, but do your homework. Signs can be misleading. On a recent visit I was lured off the main road with a tall banner exclaiming “Beachfront Park with hook-ups, Mexican restaurant and bar at reasonable rates.” Upon investigation I found a tumble-down area with a deserted café and no RV parking, just a lean-to on the beach. See the list that accompanies this article for a few of the many campground opportunities.
There are three gas stations in San Felipe, one with diesel fuel, and a propane plant to refill portable tanks. Although credit cards are accepted at a few of the larger restaurants and shops, this town has a cash economy. When I visited, ATM machines accepted credit cards and charged my bank account $3.50 for the service.
Activities outside of town are available also. You can rent an all-terrain vehicle from San Felipe Off Road, and a sand dune course is close to downtown. Fees are not cheap “” $30 an hour. The vehicles are a neat way to get around the town and to ride in the company’s quad park.
Several miles south of San Felipe is Valle de Gigantes (Valley of the Giants), home of the towering 2,000-year-old cardon cacti that reach 45-foot heights. You might miss the one sign, so watch for it as you leave town on the Puertecitos road. The entrance fee is only $5 per car. You will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the heavy desert sand if you want to go off-road. Pack a lunch and explore the area, which offers amazing photo ops, or reserve a spot on a 2½-hour van trip with San Felipe Off Road. The company drives you to the cactus gardens with a guide and supplies water; the cost is approximately $30 per person.
Small sailboats are available for rent on the beach south of San Felipe, and horseback rides are offered at Pete’s Camp and along the malecon.
The Sea of Cortez has 10,000-foot-deep canyons that nourish an estimated 800 varies of identified fish and one-third of the world’s population of sea mammals, including eight varieties of whales. You can watch the migration from the shore during the early part of the year.
Tourists come from all over the world to San Felipe to indulge in sport fishing. The biggest player in the sport is Tony Reyes, who runs short and four-day trips. Depending on the season, catches can include giant squid, red snapper, yellowtail, grouper, sailfish, dorado (dolphin), and marlin. Other activities onboard the longer trips include diving, sight-seeing, and beach-combing.
Whatever you are longing to find on your Mexican getaway, San Felipe offers exciting activities as well as a chance to take a deep breath and not think about manana.
San Felipe Area Campgrounds
Following are only a few of the campgrounds in the San Felipe area. Check your favorite campground directory for additional listings, or consult a guidebook for more information.
Camp Turistico Bajamar
Av. Mar de Cortez
San Felipe, BC
This campground is in the downtown area along the beach with 60 full-hookup (15-amp) spaces with 30-amp breakers. Amenities include a patio, rest rooms, showers, and laundry facilities.
Club de Pesca RV Park
Av. Mar de Cortez
San Felipe, BC
This facility has 32 spaces with water and 30-amp electricity. If your coach is longer than 35 feet, check in advance concerning space limits. It offers rest rooms, showers, a store, and beachfront sites.
El Dorado Ranch, C7114
P.O. Box 109
San Felipe, BC
This luxury park has 96 full-hookup sites, rest rooms, showers, a swimming pool, a restaurant, laundry facilities, and ocean-view sites. It is part of a real estate development community that is membership-based.
Marco’s Trailer Park
Av. Golfo de California 788
San Felipe, BC
Sites have electric (15-amp), sewer, and water hookups, but may not accommodate large motorhomes. Amenities also include a meeting room and a sun deck.
P.O. Box 516
Temecula, CA 92592
This facility lies along the beach north of San Felipe. It does not offer hookups, but a dump station is available, as well as drinking water, rest rooms, showers, and a restaurant.
Victor’s RV Park
Av. Mar de Cortez
San Felipe, BC
This campground has 30-amp electric, sewer, and water hookups. Amenities include a patio for each space, as well as rest rooms and showers. Sites can accommodate RVs up to 35 feet. Laundry facilities also are available.
Before you drive your motorhome into Mexico, you will need Mexican insurance. Many businesses selling insurance can be found on Imperial Avenue in Calexico, the major border town on the way to San Felipe. Travelers can stop and buy a policy before they cross the border into Mexicali.
Most RVers are towing a car, so they need to insure the car for the duration and insure their coach for the one day they travel in and the one day they drive out. The most important thing to remember when you are traveling in Mexico is that any accident occurring in Mexico must be reported in Mexico. Don’t wait until you cross the border. American insurance policies do not apply in Mexico. Check FMCA’s Business Directory, printed in the June and January issues of Family Motor Coaching and available online at www.fmca.com, for Mexico insurance providers.
The journey from the border into San Felipe may take only two hours, but you should have plenty of water and food before making the trek. There are few stops. The highways are patrolled infrequently by the “Green Angels,” which provide free emergency roadside help. But don’t get too secure. They are not like AAA in the United States.
Approximately 25 minutes outside of San Felipe is a military inspection point. Most of the time, the young soldiers with automatic weapons will ask where you are going and nothing more. Other times they will inspect the vehicle thoroughly for drugs and other contraband. My advice is to respond to questions using as few words as possible. Most do not speak English and don’t care that you and the family are taking your first vacation to see San Felipe.
Passports are not required at this time for entry into Mexico by car or motorhome, but it’s good to have one. Beginning in 2008, a passport or other accepted document will be required for all land border crossings into or out of Mexico.
Consider obtaining a good guide to Mexico travel by RV. Traveler’s Guide To Mexican Camping ($21.95) and Traveler’s Guide to Camping Mexico’s Baja ($14.95), both by Mike & Terri Church (Rolling Homes Press), can be ordered from online booksellers, or from the publisher online at www.rollinghomes.com; (425) 822-7846. Both books offer important facts about Mexico travel, and the campgrounds listed have been personally visited by the authors.
Another valuable resource is Mexico By RV: A Step By Step Guide To RVing In Mexico by Kathy Olivas ($19.95, Sunseekers Publications). It’s full of valuable facts regarding traffic laws, customs, shopping, maps, and more.
For more information about the San Felipe area, check the following Web sites: